“The firelight has danced its last across your face my friend.
And though I love you I somehow know this is gonna be the end…”
– Johnny Clegg, December African Rain
South Africa – and indeed the world – lost one of its great souls on July 16th, in the passing of musician Johnny Clegg, a man who to many was second only to Madiba as an icon of our country. After a long battle with pancreatic cancer, he passed away in his Johannesburg home yesterday afternoon.
There’s something almost paradoxical about the passing of someone like this, a man whose legacy and impact are eternal. How can he be gone when we can listen to him at anytime? When his words and music will never die? There’s an ironic yet almost appropriate beauty in Johnny’s own words from one of his most famous songs, Great Heart, a song we sing regularly in the glow of the campfire in the Londolozi bomas:
Guka ‘mzimba (body grow old)
Sala ‘nhliziyo (heart remain behind).
We won’t write much here about the history of this great man; that you can read elsewhere. We simply want to pay tribute to him like everyone else and reflect on what a profound impact he has had, not just on our lives but on our country.
Tributes are pouring in from across the world, but it is Tony Jackman of The Daily Maverick that says it best:
Your music threads through our lives as much as your ideals do. Still do. Right until the end, you remained one of the most visible examples of how we can be and should be, all of us together in one big, colourful, gumboot-stomping country.
It’s sad for me that I barely remember my first Johnny Clegg experience. It’s not surprising actually as I didn’t yet possess the cranial capacity. My mum was pregnant with me when she and my dad attended the Juluka (Johnny Clegg’s first band) Good Hope Concerts in the early 80’s in Cape Town. My sister takes great delight in reminding me that she was physically there (aged 1!), sitting on my dad’s shoulders.
I had to wait 20 years before seeing him for the first time performing live, under the Paarl Monument. The sheer power of the man to cross cultural divides and bridge gaps was never better represented than on that night; the audience was a multicultural mix of white and black, all dancing and singing together in both English and isiZulu, under a monument that was once symbolic of the very regime Johnny Clegg protested against through the beautiful lyrics of his songs, but that now simply formed a stunning venue for a performance from a man that transcended all cultural divides
In a 1989 interview with the Sunday Times, Johnny Clegg denied that he was a political activist: “For me a political activist is someone who has committed himself to a particular ideology. I don’t belong to any political party. I stand for human rights.”
Johnny’s message was simple; it was about embracing the people, their language, their culture. It was about becoming a fuller and truer version of yourself in your own life, and seeing just how embraced and accepted you could be.
The flags of parliament are currently flying at half mast. South African radio stations have been playing nothing but his music and talking about his life story all day. The nation mourns together for a man who stood as a guiding light for millions, whose lasting legacy is for the country and the people he so loved, about how if we want to live in a world that truly values integrity, we need to choose to embody it in our own lives.
Despite the grief, despite the tears and the deep sense of loss to the world, the overwhelming emotion I know I am feeling – as I’m sure so many are too – is gratitude.
Gratitude for a man who in the words of his manager Roddy Quin, “left deep footprints in the heart of every person who considers him or herself an African. He showed us what it was to assimilate and embrace other cultures without losing your identity. In many of us he awakened awareness.”
Johnny provided the soundtrack for our national life. And the songs will forever make our hearts soar.